May 19, 2023

MSUM's summer theater company Straw Hat Players is ready to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 'Grand' fashion

MOORHEAD — Minnesota State University Moorhead has officially ended its theater program but the show will go on for the school's longtime summer stock theater, Straw Hat Players.

The troupe opens its 60th season this week, running out three shows in three weeks before celebrating the company's legacy later in June.

"Sixty years of storytelling is a good thing," says Craig Ellingson, an actor/director and professor of theatre arts at MSUM. "Regardless of where we find ourselves as far as theater in 2023, we need to celebrate the contributions of theater in Fargo-Moorhead."

Ellingson directs all three Straw Hat productions this season and also stars in the finale, "The Prom."

Things kick off from Tuesday, May 30 to Thursday June 1 with "A Grand Night of Singing." The musical revue pays tribute to the great songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The show features the duo's best-known works from "Carousel," "Oklahoma!" "South Pacific," "Cinderella," "The Sound of Music" and more.


"We’re treating it as a very formal occasion. There will be a chandelier and a baby grand piano on stage," Ellingson says. "How can you go wrong with Rodgers and Hammerstein, it's the golden age of theater and they changed and revolutionized theater."

June 6, 7 and 8 will feature "Side by Side by Sondheim: A Musical Celebration." The show looks back on the best of the late composer, Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021. The program includes works from "Company," "A Little Night Music," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum" and more.

The season winds down June 13, 14 and 15 with "The Prom". The 2018 musical follows a group of Broadway actors who descend on a small Indiana town after hearing that the PTA canceled prom because two lesbian students were going to attend together. While they try to help one of the students, their self-centeredness makes it worse.

"The takeaway from ‘The Prom’ is that it's still a good musical, the story is different, but it's about finding love. It just happens in 2023 and not 1943," Ellingson says.

The first two shows are musical revues and the latter is the only fully staged musical with a pre-recorded score. While the revues will be a little more pared back with just a piano accompanist, Ellingson says each of the songs, "are like a one-act play."

"If performers don't treat them as individual plays, you lose the intentions of what that piece is all about," he says. "It should not feel like a recital. It's bringing the best chestnuts to life."

The production of "The Prom" features Straw Hat collaborating with two other local theatrical troupes, ActUp and Wheel House.

ActUp's young actors and its mission of producing works with social justice themes was a natural fit. Wheel House, of which Ellingson is a member, will help provide the adult roles in the play, with Ellingson playing Barry, one of the narcissistic Broadway actors who bonds with one of the lesbian students.


"It provides something entertaining with social justice and we’re seeing our contemporary world reflected and performed onstage," Ellingson says about "The Prom". "Unfortunately in 2023 it's still relevant and timely as we’re seeing a fight for rights in LGBTQ community."

Ellingson, who is gay, is reaching out to the Fargo-Moorhead Pride Collective to see if there is interest in some kind of collaboration. He is also considering a talk-back event after one of "The Prom" performances.

Ellingson wants to bring in high school-aged looking dancers to cut a rug at the end of "The Prom".

"I want so many people they have people dancing in the aisles. I’d love to do that," he says, adding that it's harder to bring in younger audiences.

"Hopefully some will come out for 'The Prom' and just see that it's entertaining," Ellingson says. "We hope we’ll be able to usher in a continuation and new interaction with Straw Hat."

From 7 to 10 p.m. on June 23, there will be a Straw Hat Block Party on MSUM's campus to celebrate the company's 60th anniversary. The event will feature live music, food vendors and a cash bar. The following night there will be a reunion of former Straw Hat members.

What: Straw Hat Players’ "A Grand Night for Singing"When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 30 to Thursday, June 1Where: Gaede Stage, Center for the Arts, MSUMInfo: Tickets are $30.